Medieval times were not as scientifically stunted as we think. Historian Seb Falk explains how those myths arose — and what science looked like.
There’s no shortage of myths about the Middle Ages, like the oft-repeated — and easily debunked — notion that everyone back then thought the Earth was flat. Another common misconception is that scientific progress largely went dark during this era, snuffed out by the medieval church. But if you ask University of Cambridge historian Seb Falk, the reality is far brighter. Falk, who researches the history of science in the later Middle Ages, has more recently focused on how — and by whom — science was actually done in medieval times. His latest book, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science, gives an insider’s look through the tumultuous life of a single 14th-century monk and astronomer, John Westwyk.
I was always interested in medieval history. As a kid, I was really into in knights and battles and that kind of thing. I did medieval history as an undergrad. And I had a kind of strange career route because I worked in the government in the U.K. and then I became a history teacher. It was when I was teaching history, at a school in Canada, that I was asked to teach something called “Theory of Knowledge.” It involved some philosophy of science — how do scientific ideas come about, how do people develop science and what counts as evidence, as proof? How do we understand the world around us, through science? And how does that differ from other ways of gaining knowledge about the world? I was interested in that.
Q: In your book, you argue that what we think of as the Dark Ages was actually an era of scientific interest and inquiry. Where does this idea come from that the Middle Ages were devoid of progress?
Well, just the phrase Middle Ages, or the word medieval is already a kind of slander, right? Even from the very concept of the Middle Ages, there’s already an element that people are being negative about it. And where it comes from is the period right after the Middle Ages: The Renaissance. People decided that they would call the period they’re living in the Renaissance because they were trying to recover the glories and the achievements of ancient Greece and [ … ]